John McEnroe, Tennis Player
I can’t remember not knowing how to play tennis. There had to be a beginning — when someone showed me how to grip the racket — but I must have blocked that out, because in my memory, I could play from the start.
I didn’t have any history of tennis in my family. I grew up in Douglaston, Queens, and my parents started playing at the same time I did. I really learned the game at the Port Washington Tennis Academy, on Long Island, under Harry Hopman, who had been the Australian Davis Cup coach. I wouldn’t have known the guy if I fell over him, but he had this aura about him. I can’t explain what it was, but I know one thing: When I went on the court, I tried harder because I wanted to impress him.
My dad was supportive, but he was very into me playing tennis. I told him, “Don’t pressure me now — at least wait until the 18s,” which is the peak of your junior career in preparation for college. That turned out to be good, because I had a normal sports childhood — playing soccer and basketball, in addition to tennis — if you can call growing up in New York normal.
Then people started saying things. When I was 13, my parents sent me to the National Indoors in Chicago. I stayed with a friend of my family’s, whom my father was in the Air Force with. I lost in the round of 16, but I won the doubles. In the Chicago Sun-Times the next day, a writer said something like: “Of all the guys I watched, I predict that this guy is going to be number one in the world.” I was, like — Whoa! I was really taken aback — that was quite a pronouncement.
I remember thinking it would be smarter to not buy into that stuff. You hear all the time about how guys set goals for themselves to be number one or to be the best ever in their sport. I made a conscious effort to not make those kinds of prognostications.
I got the sense that something could happen in 1977, when, as the top junior player, I made it to the semifinals of Wimbledon. That told me that the leap between the juniors and playing — and beating — pros wasn’t going to be as big as I’d anticipated.